‘Where are you from?’
A standard question when meeting someone for the first time. As a child of Indian immigrants, I have often had exchanges that go like this:
Where are you from?
The Isle of Wight.
Oh really? Where are you really from?
I’ve encountered various versions of the question
Where are you originally from?
Where are you from from?
Where are your parents from?
It might seem like an innocent question, that the asker may just be genuinely interested in my cultural background. However, my white peers from the same place as me do not get asked these questions. They do not have their family tree or immigration status investigated by strangers. So why should I? When someone asks where I’m really from, they are actually asking ‘why do you sound like me but not look like me?’.
Once in a job interview, the interviewer asked me where my parents were from. He then launched into a story about how he’d just been on a trip to India, that he liked curry before but now he REALLY liked curry. Why he felt the need to use my ethnicity as a jumping board for his uninteresting travel anecdotes in a formal interview setting escapes me, it certainly was not related to the role I was interviewing for nor my suitability to fill it.
While I understand that more often than not there are no malintentions behind this questioning. It doesn’t matter whether the intentions are innocent or not, it perpetuates a further sense of otherness. Many children of immigrants like myself have struggled or will struggle with finding a sense of belonging, trying to grasp onto our cultural heritage while also fitting into the culture of the country we were born and raised in. Being treated differently from our white peers contributes to this cultural dysphoria.
Am I saying that you should never ask about a person of colour’s culture? Absolutely not. My culture is an important part of my identity, one that I am happy to talk about at length (hence the birth of this column). It’s a conversation that can happen organically as you get to know someone, rather than one that you should force. But before you engage in dialogues about race, you should start the process of addressing and acknowledging your own unconscious biases first.
This issue may seem small, but microaggressions need to be addressed and quashed if we truly want to move beyond racism. Asking about someone’s race within minutes of meeting them is just another way to try to neatly categorise them based on stereotypes and poor awareness of other cultures. What might seem like an innocent interaction to you could actually be making someone feel alienated and uncomfortable.
Image courtesy of Canva.